DSW Rallies With Activists To Pass the #WalkingWhileTrans Repeal

March 3, 2020

On International Sex Worker Rights Day, the Walking While Trans Coalition gathered at the Million Dollar Staircase in the Albany Statehouse to speak out about trans rights in New York State. DSW’s J. Leigh Brantly joined activists representing the New York Transgender Advocacy Group (NYTAG) and the Sharmus Outlaw Advocacy and Rights (SOAR) Institute.

The coalition has been advocating tirelessly for the repeal of section 240.37 of New York’s state law. The statute criminalizes loitering for the purpose of prostitution, and its overbroad and vague language has led to discriminatory enforcement. Since §240.37 was enacted in 1976, its implementation has overwhelmingly relied upon profiling and false arrests of cisgender and transgender women of color, as well as feminine gender non-conforming people of color.

The Walking While Trans Ban Coalition — which is composed of sex workers, human rights organizations, and advocates in New York state and beyond — is fighting this unconstitutional law. Senate Bill 2253 and Assembly Bill 654, to repeal § 240.37, are being sponsored by State Senator Brad Hoylman (D-Manhattan) and Assemblymember Amy Paulin (D-Westchester), respectively.

In a legislative memo endorsing the repeal, the New York Civil Liberties Union describes how the statutes make it a violation for anyone to publicly and repeatedly “ ‘beckon’ to, stop, or attempt to stop passers-by; to try to engage them in conversation; or to signal to motor vehicles ‘for the purpose of’ ” engaging in, patronizing, or promoting prostitution. The discriminatory application of this law is based on perceptions of what a prostitute ‘looks like,’ according to stereotypes of dress, perceived gender identity, sexuality, race, and place of activity. This classification unconstitutionally codifies into law racist, sexist, and socio-economically coded ideas of criminality.

DSW was honored to participate in this historic event. There is no better way to honor International Sex Worker Rights Day than to fight for the human rights of our most vulnerable community members. When merely “looking like a sex worker” means you can be arrested arbitrarily, no one is free.

State Senator Jessica Ramos (D-Queens) speaks at the March 3 press conference, endorsing the repeal of Walking While Trans. (Photo: Vince Marrone, 2020)

Attorney and activist Jared Trujillo of the Walking While Trans Coalition delivers a statement. (Photo: Vince Marrone, 2020)

TS Candii and fellow #WalkingWhileTrans activists read aloud personal stories of people who have been harmed by §240.37. (Photo: Vince Marrone, 2020)

Honoring Our Movement: International Sex Worker Rights Day

March 3, 2020

Sex workers and allied communities celebrated International Sex Worker Rights Day, a holiday that commemorates the tireless efforts of harm-reduction advocates around the world. The holiday began in India in 2001 when over 25,000 sex workers from around the world gathered there for a festival organized by Durbar Mahila Samanwaya. The Durbar is a Kolkata-based group that translates to “The Unstoppable Women’s Synthesis Committee.”

Every year on March 3, sex workers and activists organize protests, gatherings, art shows, and lectures across the globe to raise awareness about the human rights abuses sex workers face. Events shine a light on the resilience of the sex work community, the strides activists have made, and the battles to come.

This year, DSW collaborated with several organizations to honor the work of NYC-based groups. J. Leigh Brantly, of DSW and the New York State Gender Diversity Coalition, joined the #WalkingWhileTrans Coalition in Albany to advocate for S2253/A654. This bill, endorsed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), would repeal the criminalization of loitering for the purpose of prostitution.

DSW’s Kaytlin Bailey was a featured guest on the Twitter chat #SexTalkTuesday discussing #sexworkerrights on International Sex Workers Rights Day. The conversation is a weekly inclusive dialogue around sex and sex-positive topics hosted by Sssh for Women (@ssshforwomen).

DSW also attended “Our Right to Thrive,” a pop-up art show and silent auction featuring the artwork of sex workers from around the world. The event benefited the outreach initiatives of Sex Worker’s Outreach Project Brooklyn (SWOP Brooklyn) and Lysistrata Mutual Care Collective’s crisis fund for sex workers. The show was a fantastic way to conclude the commemoration of sex worker rights and to celebrate such a resilient community.

DSW’s J. Leigh Brantly is pictured with a story from the Walking While Trans Coalition at the March 3 press conference. (Photo: DSW, 2020)

L to R: DSW’s Melissa Broudo, Ryan Wall of Legal Aid Society’s Exploitation Intervention Unit, Jillian Modzeleski of Brooklyn Defender Services, and DSW’s Kaytlin Bailey are pictured at “Our Right to Thrive.” (Photo: DSW, 2020)

NY Gender Diversity Coalition Introduces Legislative Platform

January 8, 2020

The New York State Gender Diversity Coalition, led by the New York Transgender Advocacy Group (NYTAG) including 35+ NY nonprofit organizations, met with NY state legislators in Albany concerning the coalition’s 2020 legislative platform. NYTAG is a trans-led organization that advocates tirelessly for more inclusive gender-based policies, benefitting transgender and gender non-conforming/non-binary (TGNCNB) individuals. This is accomplished by reaching out to community leaders, educating health practitioners, and influencing policymakers.

DSW is honored to be a part of this critical coalition. Issues affecting the TGNC community are deeply intertwined with sex workers’ rights. Because of discrimination and marginalization in most employment sectors, many TGNC individuals—particularly transgender women of color—have or will engage with sex work as one of the only viable options for supporting themselves

Of the six bills in NY state, a repeal of the loitering bill (A654/S2253) will be introduced by Brad Hoylman (D-WF) in the Senate and Amy Paulin (D-Scarsdale) on the Assembly side. This legislation would amend a statute that currently criminalizes loitering for the purpose of prostitution, a profiling bill that disproportionately affects trans women of color.

Advocates refer to the current law as “walking while trans,” signifying the propensity of police to target trans women, especially those of color, for standing on sidewalks, wearing certain clothing, or motioning at passing cars. “Walking while trans” is one of the most harmful laws used to systematically marginalize sex workers and transgender individuals. Even though they rarely result in convictions, arrests are traumatic stigmatizing events, and are perceived to be a type of “stop and frisk” for transgender people and women of color.

A 2019 report by the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 58% of transgender individuals who interacted with police officers in the last year experienced harassment, abuse, or other mistreatment. 

The survey also found that, nationally, 33% of police interactions with transgender women of color result in arrests on prostitution charges.

All of the proposed bills seek to protect the rights and safety of NY’s most vulnerable communities, eliminate discrimination, and reduce state-sponsored violence. Because of demographic overlap and criminalization, many of the injustices addressed by these bills have an enormous impact on the rights of trans sex workers—especially the loitering bill. You can read the coalition’s one-pager, posted on NYTAG’s website.

We implore NY’s state legislators to pass these bills, which would provide a safer and more just society in NY state. If you’re a NY resident, please email or call your two state legislators to express your support of the pending bills via DSW’s Take Action page.

DSW and NYTAG pictured in Albany at the beginning of NY state’s 2020 legislative session. From left to right: J. Leigh Brantly of DSW and NYTAG, Amanda Babine of NYTAG, Tanya Asapansa-Johnson Walker of NYTAG, and (front) Melissa Broudo of DSW and the SOAR Institute.

The Albany Statehouse (Photo: NYTAG)

DSW Staffers Participate in LGBTQI and Sex Worker Rights Panel

December 18, 2019

DSW’s Melissa Broudo and J. Leigh Brantly participated in the NY Transgender Advocacy Group’s LGBTQI Winter Cocktail Policy Series. Melissa and J spoke on a panel entitled “Reclaiming Our Bodies,” the first of three community-building, focused policy discussions. The event brought together LGBTQI community members and allies to learn about the intersection between sex workers’ rights and the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, intersex, transgender, gender non-conforming, and non-binary people, communities of color, and other vulnerable individuals.

Not only do members of these communities overlap, but they face common vulnerabilities: intense criminalization, state-sponsored violence, increased risk of exposure to STIs, and barriers to healthcare. An enthusiastic and interactive discussion highlighted the history of overlap and alliances between LGBTQ+ and sex worker activism, how these movements have diverged, and how our communities can support and advocate for one another.

Sex workers have been involved in the gay rights movement since its origin. In 1970, transgender sex workers Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, leaders of the 1969 Stonewall riots, founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR). For many LGBT individuals, participation in street economies can be critical to survival. This is particularly true for LGBT youth and transgender women of color, who face family rejection and vastly disproportionate rates of violence, homelessness, and discrimination in employment, housing, and education. 

LGBTQ organizations like LAMBDA Legal, The Transgender Law Center, Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAAD), and others have endorsed full decriminalization, as have human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and UNAIDS. These organizations understand that decriminalizing sex work is the best way to protect against exploitation, including human trafficking.

Melissa and J bring 25+ years of combined experience in activism and advocacy. Their diverse areas of expertise—Melissa as a lawyer and public-health expert, and J. Leigh as a genderqueer, multiracial researcher, speaker, and former sex worker—allowed for a well-rounded and holistic discussion.

DSW is grateful to the Gender Diversity Coalition and NYTAG community members who participated in the panel or otherwise attended. Thoughtful and productive discussions like these are essential to the work that we do. The importance of the LGBTQ+ community’s support cannot be overstated.

DSW’s Melissa Broudo (right) describes the significant historical overlap between the sex worker rights movement and LGBTQ/TGNC activism.

Panel participants pose for a selfie following the discussion.

DSW Attends Two Key Conferences

December 4-6, 2019

Kaytlin Bailey shared DSW’s work at the American Legislative Exchange Council’s (ALEC’s) Annual Policy Summit in Scottsdale, Arizona. ALEC is the largest voluntary membership organization of state legislators and private-sector representatives in the U.S.

DSW also attended the National Organization for Women’s (NOW’s) New York state conference to learn and exchange ideas around current efforts to combat human trafficking in the U.S. Kaytlin raised concerns about whether arresting consenting adults is actually helpful to trafficking survivors.

Kaytlin Bailey is pictured at DSW’s expo booth in Scottsdale.

DSW’s Kaytlin Bailey (left) is pictured with Ana Maria Archila (right) from the Center for Popular Democracy.

Remembering Yang Song: Wife, daughter, New Yorker, and victim of criminalization

November 30, 2019

Two years ago, during a raid on the Flushing massage parlor where she worked, 38-year-old Yang Song jumped from the building’s third-floor window, rather than face the vice officers who were running up the stairs. Yang died at New York-Presbyterian Hospital the following morning.

Yang Song had been arrested months before on prostitution charges. Her case was referred to the Queens Human Trafficking Intervention Courts (HTICs), and a court date had been scheduled for December. Hyphen magazine’s interview with Yang’s family following her death confirmed that she had been sexually assaulted while in police custody.

An officer had confiscated her money and her phone and then demanded sexual services. An immigrant working in a criminalized industry, Yang felt powerless to refuse. She bravely reported the assault to the local precinct and helped them identify the police assailant.

This victory was short-lived and costly for Yang. Following the report, vice agents began to harass and threaten her. They pressured Yang to become an undercover informant, to turn in clients and friends. When Yang refused, law enforcement targeted her in repeated stings. With the assault in recent memory and a December court date scheduled, facing re-arrest would have meant prison time and possible deportation, not to mention the prospect of another attack, or worse.

Yang’s experience at the hands of law enforcement is an illustration of why sex workers are unlikely—and in some cases unable—to report crimes committed against them (especially by the police). Following her death, a report issued by the Queens District Attorney’s office denied any wrongdoing on the part of law enforcement.

The raid took place months after NYPD pledged to curb prostitution arrests. A 2017 report by the Urban Justice Center revealed that arrests of Asian-identified people for prostitution and unlicensed massages increased by 2700% from 2012 to 2016. Fully 87% of the arrests for unlicensed massages were of Asian migrant women.

Tragedies like this are enabled by bad laws that systematically disenfranchise immigrants and sex workers. Police raids are traumatic and violent, treating supposed victims as criminals. Arrests do not help, saddling defendants with court fees and criminal records that further limit their ability to find another job. HTICs, established in Queens Criminal Court in 2010 and later expanded to NYC’s other four boroughs, fail to identify trafficking survivors and neglect to provide workers with the services they need, such as employment, housing, education, and healthcare.

A report by the Yale School of Public Health found that courts increase harm by providing a way for ICE to target immigrants.

Criminalization of prostitution allows discrimination and government-sponsored violence to thrive. Yang Song’s tragic death brought these realities to light. In a world that pities, condemns, or erases them, sex workers continue to demand rights. Organizations like Red Canary Song and Womankind advocate for Asian sex workers and survivors of trafficking in New York. Red Canary Song held a beautiful vigil to honor Yang Song’s life on November 30 of this year.

Help support the rights and safety of all by visiting DSW’s Take Action page.

Marchers honor Yang Song at a vigil in 2018 and call for decriminalization to prevent more harm. (Photo: Emma Whitford/Hyphen magazine, 2019)

Yang Song’s family traveled to New York the month after her death in the hopes of gaining insight into the circumstances surrounding her death. Yang’s mother, Yumai Shi, and brother, Hai Song, are pictured in the office of the Flushing Neighborhood Watch Team’s office on 40th Road, across the street from where Yang fell. (Photo: Scott Heins/The Appeal, 2019)

DSW Joins NYC Activists To Educate the Next Generation of Social-Justice Lawyers on Decriminalization

November 6, 2019

Melissa Broudo joined fellow activists and attorneys for a panel discussion on the whats, whys, and hows of sex-work decriminalization. The panel was organized by the NYU Law School chapter of If/When/How—Lawyering for Reproductive Justice. Fellow guests included Tiffany Cabán, who is a career public defender, recent candidate for Queens District Attorney, and national organizer for the Working Families Party; TS Candii, committee steering member of DecrimNY and sex work activist; Jared Trujillo, staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society and steering committee member of DecrimNY; and Kate Zen, the co-founder and interim director of Red Canary Song. All speakers have a history advocating for marginalized communities in New York City, in particular, LGBTQ and TGNC folks, migrants, sex workers, and survivors.

The panelists brought a variety of skills, backgrounds, and experience to the panel, which led to an informed discussion articulating the compounding harms of current policies criminalizing sex work. Despite their diverse backgrounds, all five advocates vigorously emphasized that the decriminalization of sex work provides the best path toward decarceration, harm reduction, restorative justice, and community health and safety. The conversation included a history of the sex workers’ rights movement, the conflation of sex work with human trafficking, the push for “End Demand” (partial criminalization), and the exclusion of sex workers from the Me Too movement.

It was exciting to see activists come together, share their expertise, and educate the next generation of social justice lawyers on decriminalization. The panel lasted nearly two hours. After the discussion concluded, the audience was allowed to ask questions and stressed how appreciative they were to learn about these issues, so often misportrayed or overlooked. It’s time to start listening to sex workers.

DSW’s Melissa Broudo explains the difference between full decriminalization and partial criminalization.

Melissa Broudo of DSW and the SOAR Institute, Kate Zen of Red Canary Song, Tiffany Cabán from the Working Families Party, Jared Trujillo of Legal Aid Society, and TS Candii of DecrimNY (L to R).

DSW Joins Community Organizers at a Trans/Sex Workers Rights Mixer

October 4, 2019

The New York State Gender Diversity Coalition convened at the Brooklyn Night Bazaar to exchange ideas about how to support gender diversity, equality, and sex worker rights in New York. This new coalition of sex workers’ rights and LGBTQIA* activists highlights the important overlap between DSW’s mission and the rights and safety of the LGBTQ community.

The event was organized by The New York Transgender Advocacy Group (NYTAG) and The Sharmus Outlaw Advocacy and Rights (SOAR) Institute, co-directed by Melissa Broudo and Crystal DeBoise of DSW. NYTAG and SOAR have a veritable history of fighting for both of these communities in the New York area and beyond. DSW was honored and excited to join them at this event.

Activists march for sex-worker and trans rights in Stockholm, Sweden, in October 2019. (Photo: Twitter/SWARM)

DSW’s Melissa Broudo and Frances Steele join with the organizers and attendees of the Brooklyn event.

This alliance continues to be incredibly important to the policy we are striving towards. On October 2, LGBTQ advocates in Washington, DC, delivered a letter to DC Council members advocating for the full decriminalization of sex work on the grounds that it is “critical to the health and wellbeing of the LGBTQ community.” There will be a hearing on October 17 in DC on the Community Safety and Health Amendment Act of 2019. If passed, the bill will decriminalize sex work in our nation’s capital. Kaytlin Bailey will testify at the hearing.

Historic Prison Reform in NYC

September 5, 2019

DSW joined a crowd gathered outside NYC’s city hall to attend a hearing on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s inner-borough jail expansion plan. Although the city council’s Criminal Justice committee had invited DSW’s Melissa Broudo to testify, she decided to let allies closer to the issue speak at the hearing. Nevertheless, we felt honored to participate in this historic moment in NYC’s criminal justice history. The hearing followed the City Planning Commission’s 9-3 vote to approve the mayor’s contested proposal, first laid out in 2017, pushing it into the final stage of the city’s land use review process.

The multi-billion-dollar plan would shutter Rikers Island, a sure victory for human rights and criminal justice reform in New York City, and follows efforts to reduce the city’s incarcerated population from 7,400 to 4,000 by 2026 using criminal justice reforms. De Blasio believes his plan will bring New York “one step closer to closing Rikers Island and creating a smaller, safer, fairer jail system … bringing people back to their communities and families,” helping to combat recidivism and mass incarceration. However, designs to construct new 1,150-bed jails in four of the city’s five boroughs have raised concerns from community members, social justice activists and borough presidents over the location of the new prisons, continued police abuse and an overall lack of engagement with communities in drafting the plan.

Close Rikers Now is a NYC grassroots campaign that has fought long and hard against a broken prison system in New York City and its history of violence and abuse against largely minority inmates. The organization supports the mayor’s plan, with caveats, while others, like No New Jails NYC, oppose it on the grounds that the new plan will replace one broken system with another. Brittany Williams, a community organizer for the organization, is quoted in The New York Times asserting that “the city has failed for decades to hold themselves accountable for how people are being treated once they are incarcerated.” There is also concern over the lack of legally binding mechanisms to ensure follow-through on the shuttering of Rikers, and the historic 75% decrease in the New York’s incarcerated population, after Mayor De Blasio leaves office. 

At the protests outside of city hall, DSW Project Manager Frances Steele stood with the No New Jails Coalition as they chanted “If they build them, they will fill them.” Sex workers’ rights are incredibly relevant to the issues raised by the current jail system debate in New York. DSW is encouraged by the decarceration efforts and community activism taking place across the city. We support the commitment to give New York City residents in all five boroughs the justice, health and safety they deserve and end mass incarceration.

Demonstrators from No New Jails NYC stand outside City Hall on Sept. 5 to protest Mayor DeBlasio’s borough-based jail system plan. (Photo: Frances Steele/DSW, 2019)

Charges were brought that capacities at the hearings were kept purposefully low to keep out protestors against the construction of the new prison system. (Photo: Elizabeth Kim/Instagram, 2019)

Nevertheless She Existed: Kaytlin Bailey Presents a Sex Worker From History

July 31, 2019

DSW’s Kaytlin Bailey participated in Nevertheless She Existed, a live show and podcast produced at Caveat Theater. She told the story of Phryne, a famous courtesan in the classical Greek period who defended herself against blasphemy charges by disrobing in front of the all-male jury and declaring her perfect body a gift from the gods. She won her case.

This show specifically highlighted the contribution sex workers have been making to their communities for literally all of human history. Junior Mintt reminded us what an undeniable powerhouse Josephine Baker was in her lifetime. Solange Azor talked about one of the founding mothers of the sex worker rights movement, Margo St. James, who created COYOTE, and Anna Bianco talked about the incredible achievements of Theodora, who became empress of Rome in 527 after spending some time in a brothel in the Roman Empire.

Kylie Holloway, Kaytlin Bailey, Junior Mintt, Anna Bianco, Solange Azor & Molly Gaebe at Caveat Theater perform for Nevertheless She Existed (from L to R, July 31, 2019).